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CHICAGO — You’re probably familiar with Takashi Murakami’s smiling flowers and eccentric paintings of Buddhist monks, but you might have never seen his earlier works, which looks drastically different from the joyful, luxurious style associated with his name. With 50 works spanning 1982 to 2017, the current Murakami retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago(MCA) is visually and thematically rich. Its title, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, evokes a doomed atmosphere and refers to an old Japanese saying that, according to the artist, suggests that in times of despair, one has to be fed by oneself to survive. Echoing Murakami’s sentiments, curator Michael Darling frames the artist’s career within a narrative of re-invention, a continuous struggle against dichotomies within established systems.
The chronologically organized exhibition spreads over 12,000 square feet of the MCA’s fourth floor. It starts with a room dedicated to some of Murakami’s earliest works, which have never been shown in the US before. They demonstrate the artist’s resistance to Japan’s institutionalized art world. Murakami is a formerly trained painter in Nihonga — a tradition-based “Japanese-style painting,” as opposed to Yoga, “Western-style painting” — and received his PhD from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts in 1993. Nihonga was created in the late 19th century by art officials to “preserve” Japanese identity against Western influences. It has continued to develop as an ideological, diplomatic, and economic doctrine with strong institutional support, but during his PhD candidacy, Murakami started to question the concept and practice.
A defining feature of Nihonga is the skillful use of precious mineral pigments. Entering the exhibition, one immediately sees the 118-inch-long, four-panel painting, “Color 1” (1989), which is covered entirely by azurite blue, one of the most expensive and popular Nihonga pigments, a color that supposedly generates a contemplative aura. Despite its scale and conformity wit Nihonga principles, Murakami made “Color 1” with satiric intent. Art historian Chelsea Foxwell, who has studied Murakami’s PhD dissertation, reveals in the exhibition catalogue for The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg that he was skeptical of the aura elicited by the “precious” and “meditative” color blue. The azurite blue used in “Color 1” cost the equivalent of $36,000, a large sum that Murakami was somehow able to borrow from an art supply company. Ironically, despite his critical intensions, Foxwell points out that the piece still manages to impress, upholding and legitimizing Nihonga’s aesthetic of luxurious consumption.
A few years after making “Color 1,” Murakami started to step away from Nihonga. His installation “Starchild” (1992), installed opposite “Color 1,” was a more successful critique of art world pretension. To poke fun at the meditative, conceptual paintings of On Kawara, Murakami put a golden star inscribed with his birthday — “2/1” — on a large piece of blue curtain. “Starchild” directly mocked collectors who sought to buy Kawara’s paintings made on their own birthdays.
In the second and third rooms of the exhibition, we witness Murakami’s sudden shift from Nihonga-based work to his well-known style rooted in otaku culture, a recalibration marked by his creation of the character Mr. DOB in 1993. This shift needs to be understood as part of Murakami’s effort to elevate a marginalized subculture and set of aesthetics. In his dissertation, finished that same year, Murakami carefully studied and mapped the art world not only in Japan but across the whole world. According to Foxwell, Murakami’s research reflects an ambition to find a place for himself in the history of art by rejecting all previously existing classifications.
As a self-described solitary young man who wanted to be a cartoonist in high school, Murakami found inspiration in otaku culture and aspired to amplify its distinctive voice, with its expressive visual language and weird eroticism. Both exhilarating and disturbing, the otaku culture reflects the excessive consumerism and hedonism of post-war Japan, especially during the economic bubble of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. In one of the exhibition’s largest works, the 413-inch-long painting “Super Nova” (1999), countless small mushrooms gather around a massive mushroom that resembles an atomic explosion. The silver background invokes the blinding effect of atomic flash. This work immediately recalls the opening scene of Akira (1988), an animation masterpiece set in a post-apocalyptic Japan.
After finding his way with otaku, Murakami continued on an uncharted route to art world success, “not stopping until he [had] found something that people from every corner of the world would want to buy,” as Foxwell puts it in her catalogue essay. From 1999 to 2007, Murakami succeeded commercially and artistically almost everywhere except Japan, bringing otaku culture into the highest tiers of the art world and market. The exhibition devotes a few rooms — the most “instagrammable” ones — to Murakami’s best-known works, including the “Superflat” paintings, a “Kanye Bear” sculpture, and an entire wall of smiling flowers.
However, as Murakami sought to subvert the mainstream art world by championing the marginalized aesthetic of otaku, the latter ultimately (perhaps inevitably) became assimilated into the former. As happened when he adopted the principles of Nihonga for satiric purposes, through his intended critique, Murakami had actually legitimized his target. Moreover, Murakami’s initial critique of the institutionalized art world has transformed into an embrace of the market — something partially explained by his need to provide for a staff of more than 100 in his studios in Tokyo and New York. For some time he also hosted the biennial art fair GEISAI, which served as an alternative venue for young artists, but also involved additional expenses. A couple of small paintings Murakami made for this show include as their backdrops a text that reads: “I regret achieving no meaningful results whatsoever after pouring JPY1.6 billion into them …”
The second half of the exhibition is devoted to Murakami’s works from the last decade. From 2007 on, he began to use the language of a different aspect of his Japanese heritage, creating works containing eccentric characters based on traditional Buddhist figures such as Daruma and enlightened monks known as Arhats (“perfected person“). These arhat paintings embrace exquisite intricacy and creative appropriation of Buddhist iconography, anime, the ghosts and monsters of the yokai folklore tradition, Daoist imagery, and more. The eclectic references and intriguing details in these works offer enough material to spend hours scrutinizing them. Attentive viewers at the MCA Chicago might even spot the deer god from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke lurking in one of the compositions.
Murakami’s shift from otaku–based art to making works inspired by Buddhism is framed in this exhibition as a result of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. According to the artist, the catastrophe prompted him to focus on the theme of faith as a means of healing through art. As expressions of solidarity with his grieving homeland, Murakami created a 328-foot-long painting, “The 500 Arhats” (2012), and a series of other large-scale arhat paintings. But he didn’t get to show this group of “healing” pieces in Japan until 2015, when his first solo museum exhibition in his home country opened at the Mori Art Museum. Japanese audiences still don’t fully accept his extravagant, eccentric depictions of the country’s traditional and contemporary visual cultures, which some see as decadent and others see as reinforcing stereotypical representations of Japan and its citizens.
Murakami always strives to complicate conventional dichotomies created by institutions — between the low and the high, the marginalized and the mainstream, the East and the West — but the minute he succeeds, he fails. From his earliest attempt to subvert Nihonga through Nihonga itself, to his embracing of the formerly marginal otaku subculture, he seems never to be able to escape the cycle of resistance, cooptation, retreat, and repeat. He cannot simply criticize the institutions while pursuing his ambition of inserting himself into art history, because history is an institution, and institutions are the vessels of history. That cyclical situation is encapsulated in this exhibition’s title, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, but I’m still looking forward to Murakami’s next dish.